Rankin/Bass made a lot of stop-motion Christmas specials during the 1960s and 1970s, and one of the most fondly remembered today is The Year Without a Santa Claus. The reason for the special’s enduring popularity can be found in a couple of scenes in which Mrs. Claus encounters the Miser Brothers — Snow Miser and Heat Miser — a pair of elemental spirits who are constantly feuding with each other despite Mother Nature’s wishes. The special was something of a modest hit until the Miser Brothers and their theme song started getting a degree of retroactive popularity in the mid-2000s. Capitalizing on this, Warner Brothers — the current owners of most of the Rankin/Bass library — put out a new TV special in 2008, using stop-motion again, and focusing on the Miser Brothers themselves. The special is the directorial debut of Dave Barton Thomas.
The basis for the story echoes The Year Without a Santa Claus in that it deals with Santa being put out of commission and Christmas being jeopardized by his absence. In this special, things are started off by the machinations of the Miser Brothers’ elder sibling, the North Wind. Though he acts as one of Mother Nature’s more responsible children, he is deeply envious of Santa Claus and wants to take over his job.
He’s already taken over for Liberace.
The North Wind sabotages Santa Claus’s test flight of his new sleigh, one thing leads to another and the Miser Brothers — despite their every inclination — find themselves forced by Mother Nature to work together and pitch in to cover for Santa while he recovers from his injury.
The story is fairly simple and basic, and it’s easy for an adult (and I daresay most children) to figure out how things are going to turn out. In and of itself this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; most of the Rankin/Bass specials were themselves fairly simple, including The Year Without a Santa Claus. The main problem with the story is that it does feel rather familiar, since it has such a similar premise to the special that it’s a sequel to. A story about the Miser Brothers learning to work together might have been a bit more entertaining had it not been caused by the same sort of “bed-ridden Santa” premise that introduced the characters to begin with.
Comparisons to the original special are inevitable, of course, and unfortunately it’s a bit of a mixed bag in other respects as well. One such area is the visuals. Fortunately, Warner Brothers had the wisdom to stick to stop-motion animation for the special — it would be very easy to imagine them switching to CGI, but they kept to the same medium of the original Rankin/Bass productions. Unfortunately, whether it was because the old models were unavailable or they just wanted to change them up a bit, the characters have been updated a bit. In some cases this is a good thing; Heat Miser and Snow Miser themselves look great, essentially being improved models over their former selves.
Heat’s always been jealous of Snow’s pompadour.
The North Wind is a new character, and has been designed in such a way that he fits in very well with the Miser Brothers. Mother Nature has been redesigned — she’s almost completely different (I’ll include a picture below from the original special so you can compare with the new version above). It looks good, but it is just a little surprising how unrecognizable she is for being the same character. On the negative side of things, Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus have also been redesigned, and while Mother Nature was made more complex, the Clauses and some of the elves have been made simpler; their hair seems more like a solid object, and their faces are more minimalistic and less expressive.
The “before” stages of climate change.
Mickey Rooney and George S. Irving reprise their roles as Santa Claus and Heat Miser from the original special; they sound older (which, given the 30 year gap, isn’t surprising), but they still sound right for their characters. Other characters by necessity had to be replaced due to the deaths of their actors. Juan Chioran does all right as Snow Miser, but it’s definitely just a little bit different; not bad, but if you’re listening to one right after the other you’ll notice. Same with Patricia Hamilton as Mother Nature. Catherine Disher may be the closest to the original voice as Mrs. Claus. Brad Adamson and Susan Roman are voicing new characters, the North Wind and Tinsel, respectively, and so have the benefit of not being compared to the originals. Adamson is great as the North Wind, who is a very hammy villain pretending to be a good guy. Tinsel’s voice is fairly typical of TV-special elves (and it’s remarkable I can expect my audience to understand such a specific categorization), although without the sharpness that is common to such high-pitched character voices. Some voices of the type are irritating in large doses, but Tinsel’s is fairly comfortable.
The Miser Brothers became breakout characters in the original special largely by virtue of their theme song, so it’s only natural to look at the songs in A Miser Brothers Christmas and see how they hold up. The “Snow Miser/Heat Miser” song itself is reprised, of course; in fact, it’s reprised a couple times. It’s still good. The North Wind’s villain song “No Santa, Just Me” is pretty good as well, though I found the refrain felt just a little bit abrupt. “Brothers” — I would have expected the title to be “Brothers Should Be Friends”, but apparently it’s just the one word — is a bit cloying and is rather forgettable. Not bad, just not something that’ll stick in the mind. Meanwhile, “It’s Christmas Time!”, which opens and ends the special, will stick in the mind for all the wrong reasons. This song is like nails on a chalkboard; it’s very hard to listen to.
All in all, A Miser Brothers Christmas is a decent TV special, but it fails to live up to the original. The story is a bit too familiar, the songs aren’t as memorable (and it makes the comparison easy with the reprises), and the visuals are a strange mix of steps up and down. Fans of the original special will probably still enjoy it… but they probably won’t enjoy it as much as the original. People who aren’t familiar with the original may enjoy it a bit more due to the lack of comparison, but they would still probably enjoy the original more if they saw it.